Tripoli’s medieval treasures falling into neglect

Friday 15/01/2016
Children walk among the garbage and sewage in the inner courtyard in Khan al-Tamathily.

Tripoli, Lebanon - A l-Khanqa Khan was built in medieval times to provide shelter to poor widowed women. To­day, it is run by the Sun­ni Muslim religious endowments but still harbours destitute women.
Khan al-Tamathily, another cara­vanserai dating to the Mamluk ep­och, is occupied by squatters and poor families. It had been originally built to host consuls and ambas­sadors visiting the once-thriving Mediterranean port city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
The two edifices are among more than 300 historic buildings, includ­ing the Crusaders’ Citadel of Ray­mond de Saint-Gilles, which make Tripoli’s old city a living museum. Erected next to a cliff, Tripoli’s old town is an entanglement of al­leys, exhibiting a wealth of souks, mosques, churches, madrassas, khans and hammams (Turkish baths).
It is also a neglected cultural treasure that is falling into ruins, observed journalist Ghassan Rifi. “Tripoli boasts historic landmarks which, if preserved and built on in a proper way, would enable the city to play a major role in culture-based tourism in Lebanon and contribute to stimulating the sluggish econo­my.”
“Unfortunately, the Lebanese government has turned its back on Tripoli,” Rifi said. “Internation­al sides, including the Germans, Spanish and Turks, undertook a few initiatives to restore some his­toric landmarks but the largest part of the city’s heritage suffer from di­lapidation and theft.”
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, is the second most significant Mamluk city after Cairo. It was con­trolled successively by the Assyrian empire, the Persian empire, the Ro­man empire, the Byzantine empire, the caliphate, the Seljuk empire, Crusader states, the Mamluks, the Ottoman empire and France.
Historian Khaled Tadmori point­ed out that most existing build­ings were erected under Mamluk rule. “More than 750 years ago, the Mamluk dynasty seized Tripoli from the Crusaders, destroying the city that existed on the seaside and moved inland where they built a new city around the Mansouri Great Mosque, including the spe­cialised souks and the hammams, which still exist today,” he said.
Khanqa Khan is an example of the endangered monuments. Located in the heart of the old city, it was built by the Mamluks as a caravan­serai and used as housing for needy widowers under Ottoman rule.
The 12-room facility built around an inner court is accessible through a narrow alleyway that leads to the stepped porch. The old decorated entrance door was dismantled by thieves and many of the khan’s walls are cracked, allowing rainwa­ter into the rooms where dozens of disadvantaged women live.
Oum Jamal has been living in Khanqa for 36 years. She says the state of the place has deteriorated tremendously since she first ar­rived. “Life has become extremely difficult. Everything has changed,” she said. “There was a water pond in the central court and clean toi­lets but today humidity and rust are eating up the walls. The whole place looks like it is about to col­lapse.”
Samiha Kojok, 70, is another resi­dent of the khan. “I have lived here 30 years because I have no other place to go to. In winter, rainwa­ter is dripping from the roof of my room and in summer we suffocate from the humid heat. But it is better than living in the street,” she said.
A source at the Sunni Muslim endowments acknowledged the deprivation suffered by the khan’s inhabitants. “The restoration of Khanqa is an urgent matter that the government should handle. The endowment is only responsible for providing these needy women with a place to stay,” he said.
The source, who requested ano­nymity, said the tradition of serving generations of homeless women who have lost their husbands has been maintained. “Conditions for living there is that the woman should be a widow and has no one to support her,” he said. “No men are allowed to stay. Even male children living with their mothers should leave when they become adults.”
Khan al-Tamathily, close to Tripoli’s waterfront, is in no better state. Home for 50 poor families who have been waiting for years for government compensation to be able to move out, the place is also in ruins. Some rooms in the two-storey caravanserai were expanded during the 1975-90 civil war, during which there was an increase in ille­gal construction and further loss in the harmony of heritage.
Ahmad Hassan, a fisherman, lives there with his wife and four children. “I was raised in the khan and, after my father passed away, I got married and brought my wife. I simply cannot afford to move somewhere else. What I earn is hardly sufficient to feed my family,” he said.
The khan’s present state is hardly reminiscent of its glorious past. Built under the Mamluks, it was turned under Ottoman rule into a hostel for Western consuls follow­ing up on marine trade. “The dip­lomats were accommodated in the upper floor, whereas the large inner courtyard and ground floor served for receptions and parking cara­vans,” Tadmori said.
With the demise of the Ottoman empire, the khan became a shelter for poor families. “So far, the gov­ernment has failed to evacuate the residents, despite the danger of collapse and the importance of re­storing this precious historic land­mark,” Tadmori added.
The old town section of Tripoli is active and lively with its districts and souks having kept their genu­ineness and dynamism. In spite of a trend to move towards more pe­ripheral residential districts, many Tripolitans live in the old city and actively contribute to its vitality.
The government’s Council of De­velopment and Reconstruction has completed some renovation work in the souks, including a khan and a hammam, but a lot remains to be done necessitating huge funds, which are largely unavailable.